Soliciting Item Donations for Auctions: 8 Best Practices

Nothing has such a direct impact on the success of your nonprofit’s auction events as the items you offer. Your marketing and promotion tactics certainly help, but it’s your catalog of items that ultimately generates the engagement, competition, and bids that translate to a positive ROI for your event.

In other words, your auction items have to pull their weight! 

You’ll need to strike a careful balance of revenue potential, affordability, accessibility, donor interest, and more with your item catalog. Sounds like a tough task, but it’s definitely possible for any type of auction (in-person, virtual, or hybrid) when you follow the right item procurement best practices

We’ve outlined the essentials you’ll need to know to create a powerhouse procurement plan:

  1. Study your data and network.
  2. Form a team and get started early.
  3. Create a wish list based on what you’ve learned.
  4. Create an item solicitation toolkit.
  5. Leverage your network of connections.
  6. Provide an easy item donation form.
  7. Track your procurement progress.
  8. Use the data to inform future auctions.

With the process broken down into individual steps, you’ll be on your way to procuring your next showstopping auction items in no time.

  1. Study your donor data.

One essential part of soliciting item donations is getting to know your audience. By leveraging your donor database or your fundraising and auction software, you can gain valuable insights about your supporters.

First, study the data about individuals on your guest list to determine the auction items that will be most appealing to them. Try these strategies to make the most of your donor data:

  • Determine supporters’ interests. Consider items people will find valuable, meaningful, or interesting. Look at the hobbies and interests of supporters in your donor database to get an idea of what they like.
  • Consider supporters’ capacity. Keep your supporters’ capacity in mind to ensure your auction has items that can be bid on at every price point.
  • Create an initial list of potential items. Not sure where to get started? Check out this list of charity auction item ideas by OneCause.

Next, think about unique and exclusive items that can be tailored to your audience:

  • Is there a popular restaurant that can offer a chef demonstration? 
  • Is there a prime parking spot at a local venue that can be purchased for a year?
  • Are there local productions and attractions that are hot?
  • What sports or entertainment activities are popular with your audience?

Highly sought-after experiences tend to go over very well at auctions, so think about big-ticket items like travel packages and concerts that might appeal to your audience.

By leveraging the supporter information stored in your database or auction software, you’ll better target which items to solicit and drive more revenue for your auction.

  1. Form a team and get started early.

After you’ve compiled a list of ideas for items, it’s time to begin procuring. Organizing and planning your procurement process will help you maximize the time and effort of your team to get the best results.

Put together a team whose only task is soliciting auction items. The whole procurement process can be lengthy, so make sure your team is able to focus solely on the task at hand. Here are the “must-dos” as you put together your procurement team:

  • Select dedicated and passionate staff members, volunteers, or a combination of both.
  • Choose team members who have experience soliciting auction donations or monetary donations for your cause. 
  • Look for team members with large social networks and business connections they can draw on.
  • Choose team members who are at ease talking to others. Asking for gifts can be nerve-wracking, so confident, outgoing personalities often excel.

According to the OneCause guide to silent auction planning, timing is important. Item procurement should start early (as early as 9-12 months before your event), so assemble your team far in advance and ensure they have enough time to acquire and organize the items.

  1. Create a wish list based on what you’ve learned.

Next, work with your team to create a wish list of ideal auction items for your event. 

Make it a collaborative exercise, with everyone creating their own lists, comparing, and discussing various items as you develop a complete version. Review your donor data together and discuss the particular segment or segments your auction is targeting. What do those types of donors find interesting and appealing, or, alternately, unappealing or too expensive?

The idea isn’t for this wish list to serve as a definitive shopping list, but rather as a guide for your whole procurement team to stay on the same page. It gives you a shared vision of the types and range of items that your auction should offer. However, even better if you can snag each item on your list!

  1. Create an item solicitation toolkit.

As your plan comes into focus, create a toolkit of helpful resources for your team to use when soliciting auction items. This will be helpful for everyone, regardless of whether they’ve helped plan auctions in the past. Draft these documents:

  • A one-page intro to your organization and the upcoming event
  • Donation pledge forms
  • Event invitations
  • Donation request templates
  • Copies of your item wish list
  • A spreadsheet to track progress

These resources will ensure everyone has what they need to represent your organization effectively, make a good impression on potential donors, and stay organized. Create both digital and printed versions since your team will likely be soliciting items both in person and over email.

  1. Leverage your network of connections.

Ask your team to reach out to their personal and business connections to start having conversations about auction item donations. Your team will be performing a lot of outreach, and sometimes making the ask may be uncomfortable. Here are a few ways to make it easier for your procurement team:

  • Use a solicitation letter template. As mentioned above, following a template keeps the process easy and standardized. Here are a few example auction donation templates.
  • Leverage your closer networks. Start by asking coworkers, friends, family, donors, and volunteers to donate needed items to your auction.
  • Open your networks into the community. Look to local businesses and retailers to see if they will donate products or services. Explore the connections of your supporters and community partners to find existing relationships.

As you identify potential donors, start reaching out. When writing your procurement letters, provide information about your organization, event date, location, the approximate number of attendees, and how the items will be used at the event. Offer donors something in return, like special VIP perks at the event or free ad space in your auction catalog.

  1. Provide an easy item donation form.

When individuals and businesses agree to support your auction, make sure the actual donation process is as seamless as possible for them. This is where the standardized donation or pledge forms you created earlier come in. Donation forms should ask for the following information:

  • Name and business, if applicable
  • Mailing address
  • Phone and email address
  • Name of item
  • Estimated dollar value
  • A brief description of the item

Your forms should also ask donors for their preferred item delivery method, like delivering it to your headquarters themselves, having a member of your team pick it up, or creating a certificate for intangible items.

Ask them to sign and date the form, then be ready to follow up with plenty of thanks and the perks you’ve offered in exchange for their donation.

  1. Track your procurement progress.

Item procurement requires a lot of moving parts and ongoing conversations, so staying organized is a must. Use your tracking spreadsheet to create complete item records as donations start rolling in. Record the following information:

  • Item name and ID number
  • Item description
  • Donor name and contact information
  • Starting bid and minimum raise
  • Item retail value
  • Item winner information, to be filled in later

To really streamline this process, use dedicated auction software with built-in item catalog creation features. This will save all of the relevant information in one tidy location and drastically simplify logistical tasks for your team later on.

As your catalog begins filling up and you price your auction items, you’ll be ready for the next step—hosting your auction and ginning up some competition among bidders!

  1. Use the data to inform future auctions.

Once it’s time to host your event and follow up with everyone who made it a success, there are still some final procurement-related tasks to handle. Take some time after your auction to analyze your final results and gain insights that can help you improve your procurement and planning processes for next time:

  • Top-performing items. Look at your auction data to determine how each auction item performed and what sold. This will give you a good idea of what kind of items to procure for your next auction and for which audiences.
  • Event performance. Evaluate performance indicators, such as event turnout, % to fundraising goal (and whether it was met), top bidders, and cost-per-dollar-raised. This information will help you build on your successes and continue to grow auction revenue.
  • Donors to retain. Use your data to identify individuals who were very active event participants and high bidders. Follow up with these individuals after the event, thank them for their support, and offer other ways for them to get involved. Try to connect them to your cause beyond the auction end date!

Using auction software that provides easy reporting tools or that integrates with your CRM, find connections between your data. Which segment(s) of your donor base did you invite to your auction? Which items did each group find the most appealing? Which items got the most or fewest bids? How did these results impact overall event revenue? 

By sticking to an organized procurement and management process from the start, you’ll set yourself up well to generate the most value possible from your final event data.

Running an auction can be a huge undertaking. Staying organized with the right tools, resources, and strategies can make all the difference. Procure the items you need to reach your fundraising goal using these strategies, and you’ll end up with happy guests, a prepared team, and a successful event.

We wish to thank Kelly Velasquez-Hague for today’s post.

Kelly Velasquez-Hague brings over 20 years of fundraising, nonprofit management, and sales/marketing experience to her role as the Director of Content Marketing for OneCause. As a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Kelly manages all of the company’s content strategy and execution. She is passionate about empowering great missions and loves that her current role allows her to continue to help nonprofits reach new donors and raise more funds for their cause.

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